Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840–93) is justly celebrated for his ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, expressions of creativity comparable to opera and symphony as landmarks of Romantic musical art. Throughout the 20th century and to this day, the expansive lyricism and emotional range of the composer’s music has inspired choreographers and dancers and enthralled audiences. This summer, American Ballet Theatre reveals the bold scope and inventive richness of Tchaikovsky’s achievement—chamber music, orchestral works, as well as ballet scores—and the choreographic impulses to which it has given rise.
The music to Souvenir d’un lieu cher (“Memory of a Beloved Place”)—the basis of a ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, which has its company premiere on July 3—was born of restorative days Tchaikovsky spent in spring 1878 at Brailov, the country estate of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. The passionate Méditation was conceived originally as the second movement of the composer’s Violin Concerto. It, along with movements titled Scherzo and Mélodie, complete an album that the composer left with the estate agent for Mme. von Meck as a musical thank you, a souvenir of his cherished visit. Ratmansky’s ballet, for two couples, with sets and costumes by Keso Dekker, comprises two of these pieces for violin and orchestra arranged by Alexander Glazunov.
A similarly titled work, Souvenir de Florence, provides the music for AfterEffect, a ballet by Principal Dancer Marcelo Gomes. As have generations of artists, musicians, and writers, Tchaikovsky took inspiration from travels to the Italian city, including his last, in January 1890, after the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty. He remained in Italy until late April, working on his opera The Queen of Spades. That summer, back in Russia, Tchaikovsky wrote the String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70, for two violins, two violas and two cellos, naming it Souvenir de Florence, which he would revise during 1891–92.
In a letter, dated June 15, 1890, to his brother, Modest, Tchaikovsky conveyed the challenges of composing for six independent string parts: “I began it three days ago and am writing with difficulty, not from wont of new ideas, but because of the novelty of the form.” Still, the widened tonal amplitude from the additional viola and cello parts resulted in striking new degrees of expressivity in the work’s slow movement. The piece resonates with Gomes who says: “There’s a fulfillment, an emotional connection that goes to the heart, as a dancer and choreographer.”
Tchaikovsky admired other composers, but none more than Mozart, for whom he professed devotion in essays, correspondence and diaries. In 1887, Tchaikovsky created a tribute, Mozartiana, an orchestral arrangement of four works by the 18th-century master. He described its evolution in a publisher’s note: “A large number of Mozart’s most admirable small works are, incomprehensibly, very little known not only to the public, but even to the majority of musicians. The author of this Suite, Mozartiana, wished to give a new impetus to the performance of those little masterpieces, whose succinct form contains some incomparable beauties.”
Even today, more than a century later, except for the Preghiera, an arrangement of Mozart’s motet Ave verum corpus, the other pieces remain largely unfamiliar. The Gigue and the Menuet, late keyboard works, demonstrate some of Mozart’s most focused contrapuntal writing: the first, though based on a melodically complex fugal theme, is exuberant; the second, a stylized dance of dense chromatic pathos that in Tchaikovsky’s setting, exudes a melting lyricism. The finale, a set of ten keyboard variations, was written by Mozart during the era of his greatest fame as a piano virtuoso. Tchaikovsky’s orchestral palette transforms Mozart’s gracious but audaciously difficult pianistic writing to a tour de force of instrumental display and color, from the sparkle of the glockenspiel in the eighth variation to the impassioned violin solo in the Adagio.
In George Balanchine, Mozart and Tchaikovsky had a preeminent exponent. The choreographer first turned his attention to Mozartiana in 1933 in Paris for a fledgling troupe, and again some 50 years later, reimagining and making of it one of his last masterworks for New York City Ballet.
In 1960, Balanchine created a pas de deux to music—previously unknown—from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Its background provides a glimpse into the work’s complicated history. Swan Lake premiered in February 1887 in Moscow, in a staging by Julius Reisinger, with the dancer Pelagia Karpakova in the role of Odette/Odile. To oblige the demands of the ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who portrayed the character in later performances, Tchaikovsky composed a new pas de deux for Act III. This music was not included in the published edition of the ballet’s score, issued by the time of the February premiere; it remained undiscovered until 1951, when it was found in the archive of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin, Russia. Balanchine’s setting of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux provides poetic refinement and dazzling bravura to the range and sweep of the composer’s custom-made music, a brilliant tribute to the dancer Sobeshchanskaya.
Ratmansky’s 2015 production of The Sleeping Beauty proved revelatory, outlining the subtle complexity of Petipa’s choreography, matched to Tchaikovsky’s music. This season, Ratmansky’s staging of the third act, Aurora’s Wedding, includes divertissements by Bronislava Nijinska created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes 1921 production of The Sleeping Princess. The Nijinska dances comprise the Porcelain Trio, for two women dancers and one man, and the Three Ivans. For contemporary audiences, the music for these supplementary dances may bring a shock of recognition: Nijinska set the Porcelain Trio to the Chinese Dance from The Nutcracker and the Three Ivans to the spirited Russian Dance. “Aurora’s Wedding is a fresh and interesting combination,” acknowledges Ratmansky.
In his Nutcracker production for ABT, Ratmansky’s staging of the climactic second act pas de deux, for Clara, the Princess, and Nutcracker, the Prince, discloses an acuity that is rapturous—a luminous, soaring counterpart to Tchaikovsky’s profound music. The Nutcracker would be one of the composer’s last large-scale works. For Ratmansky, this ballet occupies a singular place: “Here, the richness of Tchaikovsky’s music comes from the sum total of his life experience, as a composer and as a creative artist.”
Mario R. Mercado writes on dance, music, theater, and art.